Beyond the Razor Wire: The Culture of the Prison Industrial Complex

It is our duty to fight for our freedom.
It is our duty to win.
We must love each other and support each other.
We have nothing to lose but our chains
-Assata Shakur

In order to understand the dreams of prison abolitionists, we must first understand the reach of the Prison Industrial Complex. Prison abolitionists look beyond prison walls to see social manifestations of “carcerality,” the cultures that uphold prisons. International prison abolitionist movements, embedded in diverse struggles, demand reforms that would immediately reduce the harm caused to people by incarceration, but ultimately wants revolutionary change to destroy the state that polices and imprisons us, and to transform the ways individuals and communities interact and react.

Defining the Prison Industrial Complex

Prison abolition involves strategies and solutions to address the harms of policing, prisons, immigration detention and punishment and confronting the broader systems of oppression that makes all of society operate within the logic of prisons. Prison abolitionists refer to this problem as the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC). The longstanding US prison abolitionist group Critical Resistance describes the Prison Industrial Complex as “the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social and political problems.” The reach of the Prison Industrial Complex goes beyond cells and influences our daily lives and our personal negotiations with power.

The Colonial Role of Prisons

In the book An Ideal Prison?, Patricia Monture-Angus observes that the dislocation and disconnection experienced from within correctional institutions emerges from colonial practices such as the Indian Residential School System, child apprehension, and the Indian Status registration system. Abolitionists must go beyond the razor wire to recognize the interdependent tools of settler-colonial occupation, and see the prison as one tool of colonial occupation in Canada.

Katie Thibault describes the prison as “a tool of geographic dispossession that facilitates the continual disappearance of Indigenous communities, upholds white settler colonialism, and facilitates practices of racial violence”. The prison is the ultimate site of carceral, colonial violence, but it is not the only site. Every state-sanctioned institution that Indigenous people must navigate embodies a carceral culture. Here, I pause and reflect on words from Dian Million’s keynote, Our Blood Is Currency, at the 2018 “Carceral Cultures” conference in Vancouver, where she observed that we are at a time in history when every Indigenous person has been touched by an institution – the child welfare system, prison system, educational system or Indigenous and Northern Affairs. The carceral culture of Canada is inescapable.

Carceral culture and the social life of prisons

Some prison abolitionists use the term “carceral culture” to describe the cultural impact of the Prison Industrial Complex. Within carceral cultures exist realms of “organized abandonment,” which Che Gossett describes as the state-sanctioned harms, regulations and institutionalized deaths carried out by the Prison Industrial Complex. In a settler-colonial state such as Canada, the first people subjected to so-called organized abandonment are Indigenous peoples, and this abandonment is evident in the disproportionate incarceration rates of Indigenous people. Twenty-three percent of the federal prison population, 29.7% of the provincial prison population in BC and approximately half the youth in custody in BC (44% of the designated male population and 60% of the designated female population) are Indigenous.

Often these figures are cited in the media as representing a crisis of “overrepresentation” or “overincarceration.” The language of “overincarceration” treats the Prison Industrial Complex as a neutral tool that is simply being mishandled. The prison is a site of control and regulation, evidenced by the incarceration of Indigenous communities as well as racialized people in immigration detention facilities. The high numbers of Indigenous people incarcerated in prisons and its associated bodies are not errors in the system, they are intended outcomes of settler colonialism and capitalism.

Beyond abolition of the prison

Pointing out the problems with state policies of incarceration is the easy part. Prison abolitionists must also turn their gaze to what comes next – how do we tear down the existing oppressive systems and simultaneously reclaim restorative traditions and build up transformative futures? Fundamentally, this work is about Indigenous sovereignty and the destruction of the carceral Canadian state, and it involves divesting from the Prison Industrial Complex. For settlers, especially settlers of colour such as myself, this work is challenging given our complicity in colonial occupation and our vulnerability to carceral tools, like prisons or police. How do we organize within and across our communities to take down prisons?

This question should be central to our organizing across difference. At the most recent International Conference on Penal Abolition, the conference sought to make links between prison abolition and struggles for land, housing, health, education, and environment; and for intersectional justice, including economic, racial, gender, sexual and disability justice. Activists convened under the mantle of  Abolitionist Futures: Building Social Justice Not Criminal Justice. By pointing out that carceral cultures inform unjust ideologies and institutions, activists involved in these seemingly different movements may organize together. Transformative justice is about struggle across movements, even when it is painful or hard. Especially when it is painful or hard.

I invite people organized in struggles against settler colonialism, white supremacy, patriarchy, cis supremacy/trans antagonism, anti-gay/queer hatred and misogyny to make prison abolition a fundamental tenet of their work. To tear down the prison walls is to tear down the scaffolding of colonialism. Prison abolition must be done in solidarity with Indigenous sovereignty, recognizing the role of the prison in Indigenous peoples’ lives. Prison abolition is not an atomized, or discrete, struggle – it is rooted in interdependent struggles of marginalized communities. The work of abolition exists in tandem with the work of transformative justice, reorganizing our relations so that we cease to rely on the state to modulate and regulate our lives.

Prison Justice Day: A memorial and an abolition practice

We are nearly one month away from Prison Justice Day, the annual memorial set aside to remember all those who have died unnatural deaths in Canadian detention centres. On August 10th prison abolitionists across Canada mark this day and show solidarity with prisoners who strike inside. Prison Justice Day began in 1975, one year after the death of Eddie Nalon in Millhaven Institution’s segregation unit. Less than a year later Bobby Landers would die in the same unit. The Vancouver Prison Justice Day committee and members of Joint Effort continue to organize and bring attention to deaths in custody and broader prison abolition goals.

The Vancouver Prison Justice Day Memorial takes place on Friday August 10th at 6 PM Claire Culhane Memorial Bench, SE Corner, Trout Lake Park. This event is being organized on the occupied, unceded and ancestral territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), səl̓ilwətaɁɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) and Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) Coast Salish Nations. For more information or to speak, contact

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